FC Cincinnati head coach John Harkes perceives the recent friendly against Crystal Palace to be anything but a lingering distraction for his team. He needs to be right if FC Cincinnati aspires to remain near the top the USL Eastern Conference, secure a home playoff date, or win the regular season title. The upcoming stretch of matches pits FC Cincinnati against the toughest opponents, according to the current standings, that the USL East has to offer.
“If anything, we should use this as a springboard and a platform. I think it’s tremendous,” said Harkes. “There’s nothing better than to come off an experience like this against a big Premier League club like Crystal Palace and carry forward all the positive things, the energy, the momentum, into those games. I think it’s great.”
FC Cincinnati (10-3-4) sits in third position in the USL Eastern Conference standings a little more than halfway through its first campaign in the USL. This week the Orange & Blue will host second-place New York Red Bulls II (11-1-5) and first-place Louisville City FC (12-1-6) in a span of four days. It does not get much easier next week when fourth-place Charleston Battery (9-4-5) come to town.
It all begins against New York Red Bulls II at 7 PM on Wednesday at Nippert Stadium. NYRBII are team that Cincinnati has yet to face, but are one for whom Harkes has immense respect.
“Probably the best team in the league that I’ve seen on a week to week basis, and we’ve got to be prepared for that,” said Harkes.
That respect is well-deserved. The Baby Bulls allow the fewest goals per game in the USL East and score at the second highest rate in the conference. The attack is led by Brandon Allen (8G, 2A), Junior Flemming (5G, 3A) and Derrick Etienne (2G, 4A). The defensive backstop has been goalkeeper Ryan Meara (0.800 SV%, 0.66 GAA).
Cincinnati has yet to win in two tries against Louisville City in a budding geographic rivalry. Chandler Hoffman leads the USL in scoring thanks in part to the first half hat trick that carried Louisville to a 3-2 victory over Cincy in the first match-up. Cincinnati kept Louisville off the scoreboard in the rematch, but could not finish any chances of its own in a scoreless draw.
FC Cincinnati’s baptism into the USL came in a 1-0 loss to Charleston Battery to begin the season. Romario Williams came off the Battery bench to score the game-winner in stoppage time.
To succeed against the best in the league Cincinnati will have to continue to improve, as it has done throughout the season. At this point, many of mental miscues on defense have been eliminated, and the team is generating scoring opportunities. Victories will only come if the defense stays organized while the attack begins to finish its chances.
In a perfect scenario for the Queen City, FC Cincinnati could emerge from the gauntlet leading the conference standings. The flip side would see the club fall out of the top four, a prerequisite for hosting a postseason game. The most likely outcome is somewhere between the extremes. Whatever happens will set the tone and define the mission for the remainder of the regular season.